Monday, December 23, 2013

Inhabiting Eden (Patricia Tull): A Review

INHABITING EDEN: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.  Ix + 193 pages.




        How do you interpret the mandate given in the creation of humanity wherein God says that humankind is to be given “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth?” (Gen. 1:26 NRSV).  Is this permission to use up everything in sight for our personal enjoyment, or is God committing to humanity stewardship for the creation?  What is God’s desire when it comes to our place, as human beings, in this world?  It is clear that Christians are not of one mind, but if the Bible is a key resource for understanding God’s intention, then what does it say to us in this regard?

        There are an increasing number of resources written by Christians that speak to ecological and environmental issues.  While there remain many skeptics when it comes to the human impact on the environment, especially regarding climate science, for many of us the science is clear.  If, as seems clear to this reviewer, humanity is responsible for at least a significant part of the current warming of the planet, then surely we are responsible to do something about it.  It is a matter of justice.  It is a matter of caring for the least of these among us.  Even if there is economic cost in the short run, don’t we owe our descendants an environmental inheritance that will allow them to live fruitful lives?

          The image of Eden is an important one.  It holds up an ideal, perhaps an ideal that is unreachable, but in this case one that reminds us of God’s intention.  To understand God’s intention, we who believe that the biblical story has something important to say, even if it doesn’t hold out all the answers, then this book written by Patricia Tull is a good place to start.

          Inhabiting Eden is designed to be a study guide for Christians who wish to see what the biblical story has to say about the current ecological crisis.  The author, Patricia Tull, is well equipped to guide us on this journey.  She is Professor Emerita of Old Testament at Louisville Theological Seminary, so she knows the biblical story.  She is a columnist on matters of environmentalism at the workingpreacher.org.  She is also an ordained Presbyterian minister, which means she has a concern for the beliefs and practices of Christians.

In laying out the book, Tull is guided by two assumptions.  The first is that “the Western religious tradition has been characterized by a human self-centeredness that has taken the rest of the earth for granted” (p. 13).  The second assumption is that when we look to Scripture, we find a different story, “one in which human culture finds itself embedded within, and dependent upon, a larger cosmos that invites our respect and gratitude” (p. 12).  It is this second assumption that sets the tone for the book. 

There are nine chapters in this book, each having its own set of discussion/thought questions and a “Do It at Home” section, making it a very useful study guide for small groups who desire to know what it means to be green and Christian.  Because some Christians believe that ecology and care for the environment is something that pagans do, and not Christians, it is imperative that we explore the biblical story. 

Tull begins by exploring the whole question of change, and our ability to adapt to the realities of our day.  In this chapter she points us to other movements for justice, such as the abolition and women’s suffrage movements, so that we might recognize the needs of today in the light of previous struggles. 

In the second chapter Tull looks more specifically at the role of humanity in creation.  She lifts up images like the image of God and dominion.  I appreciate her noting that while we tend to define dominion in terms of exploitation – it’s ours and we can do what we please – the word rule or dominion in context speaks of “sheep-tending.”  That is, rule in this sense is quite the opposite.  It involves protecting the creation from exploitation.  It involves preserving the flock in the face of dangers that diminish the flock, and the “cultivation of a sustainable coexistence” (p. 25). 

Moving on, in a chapter entitled, “Leaving the Garden,” Tull leads us on a journey of exploration through the biblical text, where we discover the unintended consequences of human actions.  She points out the parallels between stories of human recklessness in Genesis and ecological alienation today.  She suggests that in the Hebrew Bible, “the condition of the land” is “the best index of human responsiveness to God” (p. 47).  If the condition is poor then our relationship with God is deficient.  If it is good, then it is a sign that we are in full communion with God.  As we look out at our world, we need to ask, how does the world’s condition speak of our relationship with God? 

As we continue on we come face to face with the practical concerns, such as consumerism and its impact on the created order (chapter 4), with special attention give to the way we produce food (chapter 5).  Our commidifying of food has led to significant consequences to the environment.  We have moved from agriculture to agri-business. The goal is not merely to feel guilty about one’s food choices (I am quite guilty of embracing commoditized food), but to better understand “the purpose of food in a just society,” so that we can help others understand how our actions impact others.  The sixth chapter focuses on the treatment of animals.  As one who enjoys eating meat, this was not an easy chapter to read, but again if we are called to be responsible for animals, then what are we willing to do?  That question is lifted up again in the seventh chapter, which focuses on “environmental fairness.”  Tull points us to the story of Naboth’s vineyard, which King Ahab desires.  When Naboth decides to keep it, Ahab ends up killing this resister to his dominion, simply because he stood in the way of Ahab’s desires.  What does it mean to provide for equality and fairness when it comes to land?  What kind of justice are we willing to pursue for those who are affected by toxins seeping into the land?  Is cheap gas or electricity worth exposing the children of others to these toxins?

One of the most important and controversial issues of our day is the debate over climate change.  Although science is nearly unanimous in its recognition that humankind is contributing greatly to increased temperatures on earth, and that if we don’t deal with this soon the impact could be catastrophic.  Here the image is one of inheritance.  What will our children and our children’s children inherit?  What long term ill is created in exchange for short-term gain?  Tull reminds us of the warning in the Ten Commandments about God “punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation,” while showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation (Exodus 20:5-6).  That is, while “children enjoy their ancestors’ accomplishments, but [they] also bear the brunt of their mistakes” (p. 132).  Our use of fossil fuels is contributing to the release of carbon into the atmosphere, leading to the creation of the greenhouse effect.  Although the rise in temperatures at this point is small, they could start rising with alarming speed in the near future.  And it will be our descendants who pay for this. 

            In the final chapter, Tull invites us to consider living within our means.  While some Christians think we’re living in the last days and therefore they have little incentive to work for the long term good of this planet, Jesus cautions us to be more circumspect, and also take care of this home that we inhabit with the rest of creation.  If we accept the challenge, and accept it we must, then there are things we need to do.  We need to pray, study and learn, change habits that affect the environment (put in cfl bulbs to reduce energy usage), and communicate one’s values to others.
 
The task ahead may seem overwhelming, but the biblical story can help us recognize God’s intent and help us discern how we live in this world in a way that is just and equitable.  With this book as a guide, we can engage together in this work of discernment, listening closely to the biblical story. 

Much can be gained by reading this book.  It is attentive to the findings of modern science.  It invites us to listen carefully as well to this testimony.  At the same time it is focused on listening to the biblical story.  Thus, it is thought provoking and spiritually challenging.  It will have value even if read individually, but I think it will have even greater value if read in community.  The author, Patricia Tull, is clearly committed to what is known as “creation care.”  She is also a person who holds the Bible with great affection and attentiveness.  All of this makes not only for a good read, but a necessary one.  

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